Since the spring quarantine I am walking three to five miles or more each day in Florence. The relative freedom is exhilarating. My usual routes take me south to Porta Romana, west to the U.S. consulate, north to Campo di Marte Train station, east to San Niccolò. I used to walk in silence but got bored. Then I started listening to music, which is fine when I am jogging, but walking? Very boring. I started pining for a narrative to sink my teeth into. But how? Where? Are such things even possible?
I only learned about Bluetooth headphones two years ago. Game changer. It’s not that I’ve been specifically avoiding anything. We’ve just been neck deep in pregnancy, infancy, and parenthood, then that big move overseas in 2016. Three years ago Eleanor was still in daily diapers at home and at school. There wasn’t a lot of time to keep up on nonessential tech topics.
I hadn’t boarded the podcast train (late traveller due to the fact that I have not car commuted since 2004, which was peak NPR for me), but I once learned that podcasts are included with our family Spotify subscription, I realized I could be listening to creative content. I have been basically nonstop listening to podcasts for one to two hours a day since last May. An Italian history podcast. Hardcore History, out of Eugene, OR, which covered a bunch of Roman stuff, then Japan. Bookclubs by The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Spectator. NPR Politics. Le Monde in French. TedX talks in Italian. A peninsular Spanish history review for kids in colegio, which was touching. Code Switch. (If you have any good nonfiction podcast recommendations, please mention in comments below! I prefer to read my fiction on paper, but lately love a good author interview.)
Last week, on the NYT podcast, David Sedaris popped up. I almost skipped it. I used to like his writing, twenty years ago and more. when friends and I would read him aloud to one another at home or on road trips, the tears streaming down our faces. Me Talk Pretty One Day and Naked were comic gold. But them David, like many other privileged writers past and present, moved to Paris, and then bought a farmhouse in Normandy. His writing got edgier and meaner. I’d never seen him read in person, and I confess that I don’t even know very well the oeuvre of his even funnier sister Amy, aside from the occasional YouTube video clip with Craig Ferguson, or incongruous advertisement for Microsoft Windows. I’ve subscribed to The New Yorker for at least a quarter century and, at some point, his pieces in the magazine started to seem so mean and catty to me, especially toward his partner Hugh. I went off David, my affection for him seeming of a piece with the decadent young adulthood of my late twenties in Seattle. He was just so … ponderous.
I even recently gave his latest book to a writer friend for a birthday gift, telling her – I actually told her this – “I don’t even like David Sedaris, but I know everyone else does, so figured you do too.” She told me she actually truly did love David Sedaris, and asked me why I didn’t like him, but my reasons crumbled under her logical and kindly cross-examination. I felt like a non-congenial faux writer monstress.
But here was David on a podcast with The New York Times host. He didn’t seem like a monster at all. Why had I decided he was so mean? He was sympathetic and self-effacing. And weirdly, listening to him felt like he was inside my head. He too walked miles a day listening to podcasts (and audio fiction!) He too wrote aimless fiction that he described as plotless character studies until he realized he could just write about his days! He too wrote every piece to be read aloud as a sort of performance piece. He had audiences of up to 10,000, though, and now everyone knows about his private life, but Sedaris don’t care. He hadn’t even ever been published before until he started appearing on NPR, talking about things that happened to him. His writing ideas seemed insanely basic to me. Dig out old journals and pillage them? Wish you could just write like Tobias Wolff? Walk for miles listening to your own little audio world? Extrapolate one minor incident that occurred in the course of one ordinary day to create a thematic humorous piece?
Fortunately Mr. Sedaris has been very prolific in his output since I stopped reading him, so I have a great backlist to work through. I hope this doesn’t mean I have to extend a similar aesthetic largesse to Malcolm Gladwell. I have seen him speak in person, and I also used to read his writing with great vigilance, but his schtick seems to age poorly as our news grows more complicated.
My other brilliant idea for the wintry pandemic months is to work my way through a checklist of Shakespeare plays adapted for cinema. Last year’s forays will count for credit this year, but nothing before 2020. Meta-Shakespeare screenplays are also a possibility. And yes, I have recently rewatched Shakespeare in Love, and no, it didn’t really age well either (the nineties feel like a century ago: Gwyneth, Weinstein, #metoo). So I won’t be rewatching Gwyneth in a pixie running around like Romeo. I halfheartedly start this project every year, but this year, 2021, I am going to make that checklist and do it.